It’s safe to say that Layers of Fear was a pivotal title for Bloober Team. Before winning over a legion of fans with its take on mind-bending psychological horror, it had made games like A-Men and Basement Crawl, the latter being so bad that the developer remade it from the ground up, rebranded it as Brawl and gave it to purchasers of Basement Crawl for free. Perhaps we should see this remake of Layers of Fear as a celebration, then? Or perhaps as a statement of the developer’s intentions going forward. Horror is in Bloober Team’s blood now, and it’s ready to step things up.
It’s a shame, then, that this reimagining of not only the original Layers of Fear but also its sequel, doesn’t impress quite as much as it should. Things get off to a great start, with a wonderful new cinematic introduction acquainting us with yet another protagonist, the writer, whose story ties everything together. But it’s as you play through this smorgasbord of horror that you begin to realise that an opportunity has been missed. You see, despite the presence of the Writer, this still very much feels like two separate games played one after another.
After a short stint with the Writer, you’ll play through the story of the Painter, i.e. the first Layers of Fear, without much of an interruption. Much of it will be familiar to fans of the original game, with some scenes remaining totally unchanged. Now running in Unreal Engine 5 and with advanced features such as Lumen and Nanite, however, it’s more atmospheric than ever. The rooms and halls you wander in search of unorthodox tools to help finish your masterpiece now truly are photorealistic, and combined with the weird goings-on and masterful sound design, you can’t help but be on the edge of your seat.
It’s simple: Layers of Fear was a great game in 2016 and it remains so now. In fact, it’s even better in this remake thanks to additional gameplay elements. A lamp, for example, is not only used to light your way in the darkest areas, but also as a tool for burning through anomalies in the environment. It’s useful for defence, too. Finding yourself pursued by a ghastly apparition at points, you can run or choose to face your fears, focusing your torch to dispel your adversary. But you need to be careful, as the lamp can only be used for a small amount of time before needing to be recharged.
A dark tale about love, family, obsession and ambition, the Painter’s story is one you’ll want to see through to its end. Or rather, an end. You see, there are multiple endings depending on your choices and actions made throughout the game. Along with a wealth of collectibles to locate, there is a fair amount of replayability to be found here, and chances are you might jump in again at some point. The DLC for the game is included, too, allowing you to get some additional perspective on its grim events. The only thing that brings the Painter’s story down somewhat is some of the voice acting, which can be a bit awkward at times.
With the Painter’s story wrapped up, the events of Layers of Fear 2 are then covered, putting you in the shoes of the Actor. The trouble is, this second half just simply doesn’t measure up to the first in any way. It’s lacking its charm, atmosphere, and engaging story. It has a more varied range of scenery, being set on an expansive ocean liner, but it feels less eventful. It’s also overly reliant on mannequins. If the mere sight of a mannequin puts you on edge maybe you’ll enjoy it more; we just got bored of seeing them every minute or so.
Still, this version of Layers of Fear 2 is undoubtedly better than the original. Once again there are new features, with you now able to manipulate certain mannequins with your flashlight, which can also be used to momentarily freeze a monstrous pursuer who occasionally shows up to chase you. There’s still a massive gulf in quality compared to the original Layers of Fear though, which means you’ll spend most of the second half of this experience wishing you could return to the spooky house and its troubled artist.
Ultimately, it’s just a shame that Bloober Team hasn’t been a little more ambitious with this remake-cum-collection. Perhaps the stories could have been weaved together, adding more unpredictability and variety. And it’s a shame there isn’t a little more consistency as well. All of the notes you find in the first half, for example, are accompanied with dialogue. In the latter half, they don’t. If you get caught, you’ll also find that death is handled differently. It really does feel like you’re playing one game after another rather than a reimagining of them both combined.
Fans of the Layers of Fear series are likely to enjoy this new take on its stories, combined and enhanced with new elements. But at the same time, you’re likely to be disappointed that more hasn’t been done to make everything more consistent and unique. What’s more, it’s not as if these games are so old that they needed remaking; the Writer’s story could have perhaps been its own thing, expanded upon to offer something genuinely new. So, while Layers of Fear (2023) is a solid horror experience, we can’t help but feel like Bloober Team has missed an opportunity to really mix things up and impress.